The 900-Year-Old Manicule

Friday September 08, 2017 Written by Garry

manicule WIDE

Think: manicule, and you probably visualise those iconic American ‘Wanted’ posters of the 1800s – like this one, which was attempting to smoke out John Wilkes-Booth who famously murdered Abraham Lincoln. Back then the manicule was a nifty punctuation mark of sorts, used to amplify a call to action on ye olde posters.

But for eons prior to that, the manicule had been used as a way of highlighting text, before quills had evolved into iridescent textas. Unlike most other typographical marks that have changed significantly over time, the form of the manicule has barely altered in 900 years.

According to punctuation historian Keith Houston, the pointy finger made its debut in none other than the Domesday Book of 1085. The brainchild of William the Conqueror, this great survey was designed to help him assess land ownership and haul in taxes – and the manicule made some cameos in the margins (no doubt playing a key supporting role in highlighting barons with huge land-holdings, or dukes with excellent art collections).

The manicule became a firm favourite of Renaissance humanists throughout the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries; they were crazy for it, splashing it liberally in the margins of their Ciceros, law manuals and notebooks. Historian Keith Houston points out that there wasn’t always great quality control on these renderings. Some have sinister, elongated index fingers like this particularly creepy one from a 12th century English text (scroll down the post to see it). Others were just plain strange – like this example from 14th century Italian scholar Petrarch, who was in the habit of giving his manicules a thumb and five fingers.

Sadly, nowadays the manicule has been relegated to the rarely used, and utterly useless, wingdings font. Few people realise that it featured on one of Britain’s most important historical documents, and quite possibly played a vital role in forcing those barrel-bellied, roast pheasant-eating aristocrats to pay their dues.